Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 21 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.
Back in the 1960’s there was a television show called “Candid Camera.” The basic premise of the show, as you all probably recall, was to play some sort of practical joke on someone and watch his or her reaction through a hidden camera. After the person was suitably embarrassed, the jokester would point out the hidden camera and say “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
And, at the end the show, Allan Funt, the host and developer of the show would always look at the camera and warn us about someone coming up to us when we least expected it and saying the same thing.
It is that least expected part that tends to bother us. Because the things that are the least expected are generally surprises and we do not like surprises, except when someone is giving us something as a gift. Except on those rare occasions, we like to know what is coming.
And that is the way we are taught and that is the way we are expected to act, everything by the book and according to the rules. Everything we do, be it in school or life, is predicated on the idea that things will occur as expected.
And, when in life, when the unexpected happens, we are not usually equipped to deal with the outcome. The events of the past three years only show that we as a country were not prepared to deal with the idea of terrorism striking our homeland and that we still have no idea, even after three years, of how to deal with it.
If we had some idea of how to deal with the unexpected, our lives would probably be better off. Many times, we have seen that the great discoveries of society have all come when the person did not discard the unexpected results or dismiss them as superfluous. Teflon, penicillin, and X-rays are all discoveries that were the result of looking at the anomalous or unexpected results of another experimenter. Joseph Henry, one of America’s first great physicists, once remarked that “the seeds of great discoveries are constantly flowing around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”
Advent is a season of preparation. It is the preparation for something totally unexpected. It is the birth of a king who came to save us from tyranny and to set us free. Yet it is a birth that will come in the most insignificant manner, to the person whom we least expect and in a place and time that does not benefit the birth of a king. Jesus will not be born the child of rich, famous or powerful people but rather in the most insignificant of surroundings and to the least expected of parents.
Even today, we have problems with the birth of Jesus. We are a society that likes powerful leaders, leaders whose force of personality will keep evil and tyranny away from this country. I have never understood how it is that such people are supposed to do this but it seems to be what we want our leaders to do. And it is the very thing that Jesus will not do.
The prophet Micah tells us that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons and his tribe was the smallest of the twelve tribes of Israel. If Jesus had been born according to society’s norms, he would have been born to the largest tribe or the tribe of the oldest son. Kings do not come from the smallest tribe or the simplest of surroundings. But Jesus did and that was unexpected.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, was hardly the most likely candidate to be the mother of the Son of God. Her pregnancy was more the subject for the town gossips than it was a cause for celebration. Without belittling the birth of Princes Harry or William of England, one can only remember the joy that spread throughout England when it was learned that Princess Diana was pregnant. And not only was Mary’s pregnancy unexpected and a cause for talk and gossip, so too was the pregnancy of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. For Elizabeth was considered well past the age of child bearing when she became pregnant with John the Baptist.
Not much is written about the reason that Mary went to see Elizabeth. Undoubtedly it was to get away from those who would question her morality but it may have also been to help Elizabeth with her own pregnancy. Elizabeth was six months pregnant at the beginning of the Gospel reading for today and Mary stayed for three months, so that may be a reasonable conclusion.
We do not know all that went on when Mary and Elizabeth met, other than the baby John in Elizabeth’s womb jumped when Mary entered the room. But this we do know; both Elizabeth and Mary took great joy in the unexpected changes in their lives. In a society and at a time when pregnancies were a threat to the health and welfare of both the mother and the child, both Elizabeth and Mary should have feared what was coming. Elizabeth because a pregnancy at her age was never easy and Mary because a pregnancy at her age was not proper. Yet, the angels spoke to them of what their sons would do and the change that would come because of their presence on earth. So they sang in joy. (Adapted from “Living by the Word” by Herbert O’Driscoll in Christian Century, December 13, 2003.)
It was joy because there was a promise. It was a promise that things would be different, that the ways of society would change. Mary sings of a new king, one who will bring the mighty and high down low. It is a statement and prayer for all those who feel forgotten in this world.
It was a promise that God has chosen to reach us in the most unexpected of ways. It is a way that tells us that no matter who we are or what our place in society might be, God has not forgotten us.
It is also a statement that God’s love for us is constant, even when our own love for God may not be. It is a statement that says that God’s love is not based on societal or economic values. And that is the other unexpected result of Christ’s birth.
This very fact is hard for many people to accept because they are so used to the idea that it is power, economic status, and the place that you live that determines what you will be.
But because God’s grace and love are given freely, because Christ was born in such an unexpected manner, so too must we respond in unexpected ways. No longer can we respond to the threats and problems of the world, generally caused by the abuse of power and money, with more power and more money. If we do not have either, we feel that we are powerless and unable to act. Paul asks us, as he asked the Colossians, to show the love that Christ had for us through the way we live our lives. He exhorts us to make Christ’s presence in our lives more than simply a statement.
In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus didn’t get bogged down with one specific evil. He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.” He did not say, “You cannot lie or cheat or steal.” He said, “You must be born again.” Jesus simply said, “You must change the whole structure of your life.” (Adapted from an article written by Stewart Burns concerning Martin Luther King in the January, 2004 issue of Sojourners.)
Paul exhorts us to show the same love that Christ showed for us. He exhorts us to live a life that says to others “Christ is alive in me.” And he does so because he knows that there will come a time when we will encounter Jesus.
But we will not encounter the Jesus of the Bible, walking along the road in sandals and robes. Rather, like the author Laurie Beth Jones wrote it is likely that we will encounter Jesus in blue jeans or a three-piece suit or dressed as anyone we might encounter in our daily lives. This encounter will be totally unexpected and if we do not prepare for that encounter now, we will not know what to do when it does come.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah. But it is a birth that came in an unexpected place and to people who we would not expect. The message of Christ as King is not the message that we expect from a king but it is a message more powerful than any earthly king or leader could ever pronounce. And someday, when you least expect it, Christ will come to you and ask you what you have done to help Him in this world. What will you say?